A flurry of reminiscences was preserved in Johnstown, Pennsylvania after the 1889 catastrophe
Just before 3 p.m. on the last Friday in May 1889, a flood hit the Little Conemaugh River Valley in western Pennsylvania. It was not going slowly.
Deadly wall of rubble
After several days of heavy rain, an earthen dam located 14 miles upriver from (and 400 feet above elevation) the city of Johnstown collapsed, suddenly spilling 20 million tons of water into the river valley.
Less than an hour later, a fast-moving three-story wall made of mud, rocks, trees, barbed wire, houses, railroad cars, animals, and other debris was pushed into the Mississippi River by an equal-volume water flow – arrived in Johnstown, an industrial city of around 30,000 people , about 75 miles east of Pittsburgh and nestled between the high cliffs that the river had carved centuries earlier.
Survivors later described hearing a faint rumble into the distance that turned into a “thunder roar” as the destructive mass got closer and closer. Much of the city was literally wiped away, and a mile-long mass of rubble piled up on the city’s stone railway bridge and then caught fire. Similar to Grand Forks a century later, hell followed the flood.
There were 2,209 people who died that day or shortly afterwards as a result of the flood that, until the September 11th terrorist attacks, marked the nation’s largest one-day loss of civilian life. In some places in the river valley, where small towns had stood, the houses, streets and even the topsoil were torn away by the raging water, leaving only bare bedrock.
A depiction of the miles of fast-moving, deadly rubble dated May 31, 1889 greets visitors to the Johnstown Flood Museum. Visit Johnstown Photo
You can still stand on the remains of the dam today. From the visitor center at the Johnstown Flood National Memorial near the small town of St. Michael, Pennsylvania, a paved hiking trail leads to the abutments left over from that fatal afternoon when an engineer named John Parke made a desperate effort to keep the dam intact hold. The structure had been built decades earlier and was owned by the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club, a well-heeled group of Pittsburgh industrialists and businessmen, including legendary names like Andrew Carnegie and Andrew Mellon.
The dam created a large lake surrounded by a clubhouse and cottages where the wealthy spent their free time in their exclusive enclave, hunting, fishing, boating and cruising on two excursion steamers.
“If you stand on the dam or look at it from the visitor center, you can see how big it is,” said Elizabeth Shope, a park ranger at the national monument. “Then we explain that you can only see part of it from the windows. Part of the city of St. Michael grew up in an empty lake bed. When you wander down, you feel very small when you are all the way down. “
Prior to the disaster, there had been concerns about the dam’s integrity for more than a decade, but the rich on the hill assured the working class below that all was well, and even in the worst case of a breach, water would spill over the 14 mile long river bed before it could damage Johnstown.
“Disasters fade, but there are always problems here. Probably the biggest problem is people’s inattention to the threat to the environment, ”said Richard Burkert, president of the Johnstown Area Heritage Association, which runs the Johnstown Flood Museum in the heart of the city. “Not only did they have a dam that was an accident waiting to be passed, but they bared the slopes and Johnstown was apparently flooded every year.”
Memories and movies
In the post-Civil War era, the Johnstown disaster was the biggest news in decades. Updates from the area appeared on the front page of the New York Times for nine consecutive days. Under the judicial practices of the time, the dam’s owners had almost no legal liability or impact on death and destruction, which was a notable scandal and led to massive reform of American law.
“It comes with all the baggage that we consider part of our common heritage as Americans,” said Burkert.
Over time, Johnstown was rebuilt around the few remaining buildings, some of which still stand today, and the region became a leader in the burgeoning American steel industry. The disaster became something of a legendary American story, with a 1926 Hollywood film dramatizing the event and a 1946 Mighty Mouse cartoon depicting the children’s hero saving the Johnstown mice from the deadly torrent. The Johnstown story has been part of American folklore for generations.
Visitors to the Johnstown Flood National Memorial can hike to the edge of the remains of the dam that gave way on May 31, 1889, and send a wall of water and rubble down into the valley that killed 2,200 people. National Park Service photo
But by the 1960s memories of the flood faded, as did Johnstown itself. The steel industry was in decline and the community’s population halved as unemployment rose. In 1968 popular historian David McCullough published his first book, The Johnstown Flood, introducing this amazing story to a whole new generation.
Perhaps as a result of this book and an Oscar-winning documentary about the 1989 Flood, the Johnstown Museum and Visitor Center 14 miles upriver get 100,000 or more feet in the door every year. At the Museum of the Dam, as you enter, a massive uprooted tree greets you above you and a man clings to the remains of a ruined house that represents part of the contents of that messy wall that hit Johnstown.
“It’s a very powerful picture when you go in and see all the debris in there,” said Shope. “This is how the victims described the flood. They didn’t necessarily see water, they saw everything being pushed in front of the water. “
The elegant and well-reserved clubhouse of the exclusive South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club is one of the main attractions of the Johnstown Flood National Memorial in western Pennsylvania. National Park Service photo
Not only are you impressed by the size of the lake left behind, but also by the tranquility of the memorial. The river is well below the remains of the dam, as is a series of railroad tracks that run through the breach. The club’s lodge and cottages are preserved on the hill for a glimpse of the high-end life of 1889. A project to restore the lake shore is currently underway. Shope said it was a popular spot for people who want to walk and for visitors to the area to see the place where the disaster began that changed the lives of their ancestors more than a century ago.
Every May 31st, Shope and park staff work with local school children to host 2,209 Luminarias named after a Flood Sacrifice to remember the lost. Downriver in Johnstown, the many representations of the flood through history and countless photos of the community before and after attract visitors from all over the world.
“What people see is the drama. There are still buildings that survived the flood in Johnstown, but the power of history is the survivors and how they live, ”said Burket. “It’s one of those things that won’t go away, and it’s a story with compelling characters. And we tell the story pretty well here in Johnstown. “